AntonŪn DVORŃK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 11 in C major, op. 61, B121 (1895) [37:27]
String Quartet No. 12 in F major, op. 96, ĎAmericaní B179 (1893) [26:00]
Wihan Quartet
rec. Potton Hall, December 2004. DDD

To give a different perspective than the review by Brian Wilson I have used different comparative recordings. The Wihan Quartet bring a great sense of expectancy and drama to the opening of DvorŠkís String Quartet 11, witness the crescendo, sforzando and decrescendo at the end of the opening phrase. This is a fitting introduction to their muscular approach to the movementís heroic manner of projection. You readily appreciate the passing of the first theme from first violin to an eloquent cello (tr. 1 1:41) and thereafter its tail of chromatic musing in the second violin (from 1:58). DvorŠkís second theme (2:31) is here relaxed yet quite pacy and shimmers forward, its tranquillo section (3:16) sunnily realized without any lingering. A rich, flowing folksiness is found in the second violinís late elaboration (3:40) bringing a surprising moment which could be pure Vaughan Williams pastoral. The development (3:59) is more intent and sweetly articulated, the feroze marking (4:33) responded to, the progression of the first theme forthright. Come the recapitulation (7:20), with the theme given to the viola, the colouring is more sombre, the chromatic musing now in the higher register of the first violin and more penetrating. The return of the second theme (8:13) is more sober, with greater deliberation about it in the Wihan performance. I compared the recording by the Prazak Quartet (Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 250 198) also made in 2004. Here are the comparative timings - the bracketed figures allowing for an exposition repeat not made by the Wihan:-

Timings I II III IV Total
Wihan 11:53 (15:52) 8:24 8:40 8:30 37:27 (41:26)
Prazak 14:18 7:26 8:36 7:52 38:11

The Prazak Quartet have in the first movement a lighter rhythmic pulse and spring. Their manner is less passionate and their tone less sonorous but they reveal more dynamic contrast. I like their slightly faster, more flowing approach. This is offset by a greater flexibility in phrasing, more emphasis on and, in the presentation of the second theme and its associated material, expansion of DvorŠkís tempo fluctuations. So that theme is still more relaxed, faraway, delicate, the tranquillo section slows a little, reverie fashion. Arguably itís done over indulgently and that RVW-style folk moment appears more studied. But I warmed more to this approach in the exposition repeat which the Wihan Quartet donít provide (a disadvantage) and it pays dividends still more in the recapitulation.

In the slow movement, however (tr. 2), itís the Prazak Quartet which is the more emotive, to glowing but perhaps ostentatious effect. I preferred the Wihanís more intent, inward contemplation and cleaner tone, beginning with more affectionately moulded phrases exchanged by first and second violin which I find more song-like and soulful, partly because it flows more naturally. The second theme (2:00), more inward still, is presented simply yet eloquently by second violin and is intensified when transferred to cello. The Wihanís central section is generally quiet yet intensely probing after which the return of the opening material, more decorated, comes as something of a relief. The shadowy, ashen nature of the opening of the coda (6:49) is sensitively realized.

The Wihanís scherzo (tr. 3) is the more busy, darting and virtuoso, with emphasis on rhythmic articulation where the Prazak is more concerned with the melody. The Wihan have the fresher and freer Trio (3:21), lighter sprung and with a more transparent texture as well as evident enjoyment of the catchy folk element introduced late on by the second violin (4:17). The Prazakís gentler approach still takes in keenly felt dynamic contrasts and the introduction of that folksy element.

In the finaleís combination of Czech dance and rondo the Prazak display more scintillating virtuosity and purposive interplay between the instruments. It threatens to come to a complete halt in the late first violin solo but soon gets back to tempo before sensitively slowing down again and then progressing to an exultant close. The Wihanís finale is more measured, standing back from the material somewhat, more reflective in the counter-theme.

The American quartet is better known, not just because it has a title: its tunes are more plentiful and memorable. The Wihan Quartet respond with eagerness and optimism which compels attention and creates a natural momentum from the rich viola tone announcing the opening theme and its spirited kicking rhythm in the second phrase. But the second theme (tr. 5 1:47) is tender and homely in the first violin, its decoration on repeat allowed to flow quietly and naturally where it could seem mannered. The development is tense yet resilient, in particular its fugal entries started by the second violin (4:07) and passing in turn to first violin, viola and cello. But what you really enjoy is the calming down to the recapitulation, achieved with great poise by the Wihan. Yet the loveliest moment for me is the surprise appearance of a new theme on the cello (5:12), of the same nature as the second but altogether more extrovert and blossoming.

I compared the recording by the Lindsays (ASV CDDCA 797) made in 1991. Here are the comparative timings:-

Timings I II III IV Total
Wihan 7:54 8:13 4:07 5:46 26:00
Lindsays 9:41 8:31 3:26 5:21 26:59

The Lindsaysí playing is more beautifully articulated and phrased and their dynamic contrasts are more marked but they donít have the Wihanís exciting and impulsive, yet seemingly altogether natural, surging forward, nor as rich a recording. However, I find their simpler, less emotive treatment of the second theme very engaging, as is their finesse generally, though their fugal entries are more formal.

Iím glad the Wihan didnít make the slow movement too slow, which ensures its opening violin solo is song-like, not too lugubrious but still soulful. When the cello repeats it you become more aware of the intense backcloth of the violinsí accompaniment. To all of this the Wihan bring a sinewy sadness, a bittersweet strength of feeling to the intense and sustained line, an increasingly searing, pained recollection as first violin and cello exchange statements. Then, curiously, the cello bows out, like an elder relative, to leave the second violin, like a brother or sister, to echo the first. Only in the coda does the cello return with the opening theme, eloquently and expansively sealing the elegiac mood. The Lindsays do approach this movement slightly more slowly and in a gazingly distilled manner, making it more reflective but also more distanced - a lower temperature with more crafted climaxes.

The third movement (tr. 7) has a theme of brightly assertive opening phrase and becalming second phrase. Its first variation (0:17) is given a biting opening by the Wihan followed by sweet first violin decoration. Variation 2 (0:27) is in manic dance mode as the key two quavers/crotchet rhythm is interchanged between first and second violins. In Variation 3 (0:37) the calm mood pervades all. Variation 4 (0:52) begins mysteriously with a slow version of the theme on second violin which transfers to cello below bristling violins and trenchant viola. The cello keeps the theme in Variation 5 (1:13) and the viola its ruggedness before the first violin asserts the theme emphatically. Variation 6 (1:34) offers a breathing space before aerial acrobatics by the first violin dominate Variation 7 (1:49) while repetition of the key rhythm returns in Variation 8 (1:59). The ninth variation (2:10) begins with a sonorous statement of the theme by the violins but then ascends in sweet idyllic manner. The tenth (2:29) brings the return of mystery, this time with the three lower instruments having the theme. Variation 11 (2:50) offers a rustling staccato out of which the viola escapes to develop the theme. Then the opening and first three variations act as a coda. The Wihan present all this with clarity and verve. The Lindsaysí faster, friskier, lighter approach to this movement makes it more readily identifiable as a scherzo. However, Variation 4 is thereby fiercer, Variation 5 more thrusting and these characteristics also outweigh the sense of strangeness in Variations 4 and 10. Variation 11 is heavier and the whole movement seems to be over in a flash.

The finale (tr.8) begins in light, cheery holiday mode flecked with spasmodic wilful release of energy. The second theme (0:53) is sunnier and airier. By contrast the central section (2:23) offers more mood than theme, an interlude of meditation which influences the return of the first theme to a more thoughtful expansion and that of the second to richer scoring before a heady coda reinstates a determination to enjoy. This is all graphically realized by the Wihan.

The Lindsaysí finale is a quieter but merrier holiday, their second theme more relaxed but their central section, though growing more earnest, is warmer and less of a contrast. Their coda is technically superb but doesnít have the Wihanís fiery spontaneity.

The intensity and commitment of the Wihanís performances make them very striking and gave me a lot of pleasure, though some may prefer a calmer approach.

Michael Greenhalgh

See also review by Brian Wilson

The intensity and commitment of these performances make them very striking. Ö see Full Review